A customer leaves the L.L. Bean flagship store in Freeport in June 2020. Gregory Rec / Portland Press Herald

With recent data showing the highest downtown commercial vacancy rate since the 2008 financial crisis, Freeport officials are searching for new ways to revitalize the village area.

In an initial plan presented to the council Tuesday, Principle Group, the Boston-based consulting firm hired to help reshape the downtown, challenged town officials to implement new community projects, such as pop-up skateparks or outdoor markets, to help improve the town’s economic resiliency.

Principle also recommended adopting other community-oriented initiatives such as food trucks and parklets, as well as bringing more greenery downtown and improving street signs.

The consulting firm’s efforts are part of a larger project known as the Downtown Vision Plan, which aims to spur economic flexibility in Freeport, an area largely dominated by retail commerce such as L.L. Bean and other shopping outlets.

According to Town Councilor Tawni Whitney, since signing with Principle Group in December, the project has been centered around gathering input from various stakeholders and members of the public.

So far, the project gathered 582 responses from a survey in February to March, 280 responses in a youth survey from March to April, 85 participants in a town walk on March 20 and over 1,500 responses in a visitor survey in April.

“Our goal, before we even acted for approval to try and find a consultant, was we wanted to capture the voice of the community,” said Whitney. “These ideas were from the input that the Principle Group received from all the different surveys and town walks.”

Principle Group also suggested experiments with roads and parking lots, such as painting murals at key intersections to signal the entrance of downtown, increasing street parking downtown to help slow traffic, better pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure and repurposing large parking areas for community events.

“This is really our call to action,” Principle Group Founder and Director Russell Preston told the council. “So, we’re challenging you to have one or two or three of these pilot projects up and running in a month.”

Whitney said she believes the town could launch some of these projects in the next month and she said that some ideas are already coming together, such as a small outdoor concert that was recently held downtown. Whitney added that specific ideas will be selected based on energy and momentum from community volunteers.

“I am completely invigorated by this presentation and can’t wait to find a bucket of paint and a roller and start painting the town,” said Freeport Council Chairperson John Egan.

According to the Executive Director of the Freeport Economic Development Corporation Keith McBride, Freeport’s downtown vacancy rate increased has increased to 12.38% in 2021, the highest rate since the 2008 financial crisis. Freeport has 780,318 square feet of commercial space in the downtown area.

Some examples of businesses that have left recently, according to McBride, include Subway, Olympia Sports, Nike and Kay Jewelers, among others.

McBride said that, while the decision to close up shop varies from business to business, he believes the shift in how people shop due to ecommerce has played a significant role in the closures, only to be accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the public comment portion of the presentation, Freeport residents spoke favorably of the project.

“I loved all the ideas that you posted, looks very exciting,” said Freeport resident Katrina Vanbrugh, who also recommended considering a dog park and public bathrooms.

Freeport resident Andy Arsenault also said he was excited about the presentation. “I’m glad that we’re doing this now,” Arsenault said. “I want to see people move forward, don’t get bogged down in all the details, just try something organic and just move forward because if we don’t well be behind the eight ball.”

“What I loved about all of this is, what happened on the downtown walk was, I got this feeling of agency,” said Freeport resident Maryellen Carew. “It wasn’t like we were saying ‘they ought to do this,’ we were saying ‘we ought to do this,’ and that just, that made me so excited.”

For the initial phase of the process, Principle Group was paid approximately $50,000 sourced from the town capital reserves, according to Freeport Finance Director Jessica Maloy. Maloy added that the town has budgeted another $100,000 for fiscal year 2022 for the next phases of the process.

Going forward the plan is available for public comment until June 14. The project will then enter the second phase of the process, which will continue to be centered around community visioning. Lastly, in the third phase, the project will engage in community design and planning, with a final plan adoption scheduled for early 2022.

“We’re at the end of the beginning of the process,” said Preston, noting that later the project will look to revisit other areas of input, such as housing. “We have so much input so far that we haven’t really even addressed a lot of that in this early action plan because it requires more dialogue with you all.”

For more information, visit freeportdowntown.me

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